Everyone has heard the tired phrase, “path of least resistance.” It represents a principle that I have no objection to. Of course there is no reason to make more work for oneself without good reason. No one is arguing with this idea. All things being equal, the shortest path to a goal is usually the best. But it occurred to me today to take this phrase and modify it a bit to create another principle, one perhaps equally valid, yet one far less frequently discussed. Let us consider this new phrase: the wrath of least persistence. What do I mean by this?
It seems to me that more damage has come from failure to press our advantages, failure to pursue a defeated enemy, and failure to work diligently, than has come from some momentous error of commission on our part. We have harmed ourselves more by our inaction than by our action; by failing to be diligent, by failing to pursue a defeated enemy, or by failing to press our advantage in some situation, we have been guilty of a lack of persistence. Fortune hates men who sit on their laurels. She despises those who, because of their own arrogance or indifference, prefer to sit comfortably and await developments, rather than seizing the moment for action. This is what I mean by the phrase wrath of least persistence. A failure of persistence on our part invites a wrathful retribution by Fortune.
Military history is littered with examples of generals who failed to pursue defeated enemies. It happens all the time. And it usually happens for one (or more) of these three reasons. One, the victor is utterly exhausted; two, the victor lacks (or thinks he lacks) actionable intelligence about his enemy; and three, the victor is convinced that his enemy is finished, thus relieving himself of his obligation to pursue. This usually ends up being a crucial mistake. Imagine what the coalition of Italians and Spaniards might have done to their enemy had they followed up their crushing naval victory at Lepanto in 1571 with a direct assault on Constantinople.
But the best generals do understand the importance of pursuit. Julius Caesar and Napoleon always made a point of pursuing their enemies until they were totally defeated. “Your objective is Lee’s army,” U.S. Grant counseled a subordinate general during the final stages of the American Civil War. “Where he goes,” Grant admonished, “you will go also.” Other commanders were no less mindful. One example of this principle I like very much.
The historian Livy (XXV.37) relates that a Roman knight named Lucius Marcius (the historian Frontinus (II.10) calls him Titus Marcius) was tasked with taking over command of the remains of the armies of the Scipios in Spain in 212 B.C. With his forces, he once came across two camps of Carthaginians that were relatively close to each other. His men were tired and demanded a rest from the long marches that they had been subjected to; but he was not about to do this. He knew the enemy was celebrating a recent victory and had lowered its guard; so he wanted to attack the Carthaginians in the dead of night while they were unprepared.
This Marcius did. He smashed the nearer camp, and slew its occupants to a man. His men then wanted him to take a rest, and resume the campaign on the following day. But Marcius was not willing to do this. He ordered his men, much against their will, to get themselves ready for action again. He attacked the second camp on the same night, and was victorious there also. This series of actions restored to Rome its control of Spain. Marcius had made use of a maxim that can even be found in the Old Testament (I Samuel 30):
Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelek, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?”
“Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”
Pursue them and you will succeed. There are so many examples of commanders allowing their enemies to slip through their fingers that we need hardly cite any of them here. Why does this happen so often? Arrogance has much to do with it. Insolence and pride blind men to the right courses of action, and emotion convinces them that they have assessed the situation correctly. Along these lines, Herodotus tells us that Xerxes was guilty of this many times during his ill-fated attempt to invade Greece. In book VII.8 of his history, Herodotus recounts how Xerxes assembled a number of dignitaries before embarking on his invasion. Xerxes told them this in his own haughty way:
I have brought you together so that I might not seem to have used solely my own counsel before planning this expedition. But remember that your job here is not to advise me, but to obey.
With this arrogant and dismissive comment, the king revealed that he was not interested in listening to his experts; he was only interested in listening to his flunkies and relying on his personal delusions. The price he paid for this was a very high one. Even the great Hannibal, so often celebrated, was not perfect: he might have followed up his tremendous victory at Cannae with a direct march on Rome, but seems to have thought his enemy was already finished. Even when his lieutenant Maharbal told him that he knew a way for Hannibal “to dine on the Capitol in Rome” in a few days, Hannibal did not take him seriously (Livy XXII.5.1–4). Even the greatest of commanders have made this error; and Fortune has made a point of punishing them for it.
If those who are the “least persistent” suffer the most “wrath” from Fortune, it should follow that the most diligent and persistent should win from Her the most favor. Valerius Maximus (VIII.7) tells us of a politician and orator named Roscius, who was famous for his theatrical gestures while he made speeches. To many people with no knowledge of how to craft speeches and arguments, it seemed that Roscius was acting randomly and carelessly. It seemed that just did things at the spur of the moment. But he was not some buffoon. He actually practiced each and every gesture he made during his speeches, so that the proper effect was produced on his audience. By his diligence and applied effort, he won the favor not just of the electorate, but also the friendship and respect of many influential men. Hard work in preparation for some task is the key to success in any field. Valerius has an eloquent way of stating this principle:
These are the rewards of focused, anxious, and unrelenting study; and in this way can a modest actor find a praiseworthy place for himself among the rolls of such great men. [Haec sunt attenti et anxii et numquam cessantis studii praemia, propter quae tantorum virorum laudibus non impudenter se persona histrionis inserit]
This how to avoid the “wrath of least persistence.” Those who are the least persistent will be punished by the wrath of Fortune. We should prepare, train, and taking nothing for granted; we should avoid arrogant behavior and close-minded attitudes; and we must constantly strive for knowledge in various fields. This–this maximum persistence–is the way to avoid to wrath of Fortune, and make her favorably disposed towards us and our designs. Pursue them, and you will succeed.
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